Lured by visions of nearly magical medical solutions for everything from cancer to Alzheimer's, California voters six years ago approved a plan to borrow billions of dollars to pay scientists to look into human embryonic stem cell research.
Today the unprecedented $3 billion research effort by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine faces a watershed moment, including the most sweeping review yet of its progress along with the departure of the man whose name has become synonymous with California stem cell research. Additionally, leaders of the program are pressing hard for concrete results that will persuade voters to cough up billions more to continue the effort.
This confluence of self-examination and changing of the guard comes amid criticism over the agency's promise of transparency and openness as it operates independently from oversight of the governor and Legislature; conflicts of interest by a board of directors who have directed $1 billion in grants to universities and research enterprises to which they have links; and the fact that no embryonic stem cell therapy is ready for patients, although the 2004 campaign for Proposition 71 seemed to offer hope for speedy development of cures.
Proposition 71 was described as a 10-year effort that would sidestep the Bush administration's ban on funding of human embryonic stem cell research. Actors Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, and the late Christopher Reeve, who played Superman, were featured in ads promising cures in the campaign.
The ballot initiative gave the new state agency $3 billion in state bond financing and has fueled a lab building spree at California research organizations and universities, fed by $271 million in seed money from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, known as CIRM. As of this month, CIRM has handed out $1.1 billion to about 400 California scientists and research institutions. That is a pace that runs close to $56,000 an hour since the state treasurer first sold California stem cell bonds on Oct. 4, 2007.
The campaign was headed by Robert Klein, a Palo Alto real estate investment banker who was subsequently chosen chairman of CIRM. Klein says he is stepping down in December at the end of his six-year term. The agency's 29 directors are expected to meet next month to pick a new leader.
Longtime CIRM observer John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, said Klein's influence has been so pervasive that it is hard to predict what his departure will mean. "Perhaps, now the agency will move out of its ongoing startup mode and finally develop more routine procedures," Simpson said.
Also next month, the agency's directors will deal with a key, strategic report from a blue-ribbon panel that recently conducted the most sweeping review ever of CIRM's programs. CIRM barred the public from nearly all of the review sessions that were orchestrated over a three-day period at its headquarters in San Francisco.
The report, released Wednesday, had high praise for the agency's work, but it made no attempt to measure CIRM against the campaign promises of 2004. The panel recommended closer ties with the biotech industry, some segments of which have been unhappy with CIRM. It also recommended performing a triage on existing research to weed out nonproductive efforts, a process it warned will irk some patient advocate groups that supported Proposition 71. Also recommended was an improved public relations and public education effort, which will be necessary if voters are to approve more funding. It said the board should consider some management and structural changes in a suggestion that echoed some proposals last year from the state's Little Hoover Commission, the state's good government agency.
In an 88-page report, the Hoover commission proposed a wide range of changes at CIRM. It suggested reducing the size of the unwieldy, 29-member board and the elimination of conflicts in the roles of the chairman and president of CIRM. It also called for more oversight, disclosure of the votes of individual board members on grants and more openness and transparency.
Noting that most of CIRM's grants have gone to institutions connected to its directors, the Hoover commission said that suspicions that CIRM is an "insiders' club" undermine the legitimacy of the agency. Even the prestigious British scientific journal Nature warned in 2008 of "cronyism" at the stem cell agency.
In January, a sister panel to the CIRM board of directors unanimously called for more openness at the agency and endorsed the findings of the Hoover commission. The panel, the Citizens Financial Accountability Oversight Committee, was created by Proposition 71 to provide financial oversight of CIRM. State Controller John Chiang, the state's top fiscal officer and chairman of the committee, said, "To ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent lawfully, wisely and successfully, the stem cell program must pursue the highest standards of transparency to be fully accountable to the public."
In February, state Sen. Elaine Kontominas Alquist, D-San Jose, chair of the Senate Health Committee, introduced something of a reform bill for CIRM. She said in a news release that the agency is "essentially accountable to no one."
But a CIRM lobbying effort, led by former state Sen. Art Torres, now co-vice chair of CIRM, was successful in watering down much of Alquist's proposal, which was ultimately signed into law and will eliminate a 50-person cap on CIRM staff when the legislation goes into effect Jan. 1. Removed from the bill was a provision that would have directed Chiang's committee to conduct a performance audit, the first ever, of the agency. Instead, CIRM itself will commission the performance audit and control its terms.
CIRM laid out its own assessment of its performance last month in a document prepared for the three-day review. The stem cell agency said its spending "contributed" to research published in nearly 600 articles in scientific journals. It said that its awards played a partial role in research that has led to the initial stages of two clinical trials. It cited the funding of labs at institutions throughout the state and points to the spending as a benefit to the California economy. CIRM as well has had a significant impact on the embryonic stem cell scene nationally, keeping it alive and talked about despite the Bush ban.
However, CIRM has not delivered on the overheated campaign rhetoric of 2004. A TV ad featured twin brothers, one with cerebral palsy. The healthy brother said, "His life is different. With stem cells it doesn't have to be that way." In the ballot pamphlet sent to every voter in California, supporters said, "Vote yes on Prop. 71. It could save the life of someone you love."
Consumer Watchdog's Simpson said the "unrealistic expectations created in most voters' minds will continue to haunt the agency."
The campaign rhetoric ignored the slow and tedious nature of scientific inquiry, not to mention the required approval of therapies by federal authorities. Only one clinical trial using human embryonic stem cells is currently under way in the nation. A second was given the go-ahead by the federal government last week. Both are privately funded and do not involve California's stem cell agency. CIRM's strategic plan in 2006 acknowledged that use of the actual therapies will come only years from now.
As Klein gets ready to step down, he is publicly touting another huge bond measure for the ballot – up to $5 billion – that could come as early as 2012. He has pushed for tangible research results that can be used to sell the bond measure to voters, who don't seem to be in a mood for additional government spending.
Regardless of the outcome of a future bond measure, CIRM is likely to be in business for another decade. It still has about $2 billion to hand out. And despite the 10-year time frame bandied about in the 2004 campaign, no sunset date exists for the stem cell agency. Whether the historic $6 billion investment, which includes $3 billion in interest, ultimately pays off for California – with therapies – is still very much an open question.
David Jensen has been writing about the California stem cell agency since 2005 on his website, the California Stem Cell Report: http://californiastemcellreport.blogspot.com